The Role of the Critic (RIP Frank Kermode)

What role does the critic play in our understanding of great literature, including poetry?  How can our understanding be enhanced by literary criticism? And, I’m not really thinking about the short reviews that adorn the literary sections of the weekend broadsheets, but those critics who spend their careers developing expertise around certain authors and genres and then communicate that understanding to interested readers?

I thought about that last week when I saw that the great critic Frank Kermode had died. Some called him ‘the greatest critic of his generation’ and his death came around the same time as I was thinking about critics and how they can help enhance understanding and bring insight. I’ve been teaching Hamlet to my literature class and I was at the stage where I wanted them to be opened up to the idea of ‘interpretation’ and hear how critics had seen this great play. I turned immediately to A.C. Bradley, who I felt had helped me in my early understanding of Shakespeare: particularly Macbeth.

I generally tell my students that good critics can help you see new things in texts you read. Essentially, critics are gifted readers and there’s two or three reactions you can have. You can disagree and move on, you can say “I’ve felt that myself about this text, but never been able to put it like that” or “wow, I’ve never thought that before”. All those reactions are okay and they’re all ultimately helpful.

I didn’t know Kermode’s work as well as Bradley’s (and you can download the Bradley lectures from Project Gutenberg here) but I’d read and enjoyed some of his writing over the years. One Guardian tribute by John Sutherland said:

Beginnings and endings (genesis, apocalypse, final judgment) were a particular area of interest. It’s in this period that his most quotable quote originates. Why is it, Kermode asked, when the alarm clock by our bed goes “tick-tick”, the brain insists on hearing “tick-tock”? The reason, he suggests, is our human addiction to beginnings and (even more addictively) endings: “Tick is a humble genesis, tock a feeble apocalypse.” We’re wired, in other words, into teleology.

It relates to a larger point. Literature, as Kermode saw it, cannot make sense of our lives – and the end points, or destinations that we like to think we are heading for in our lives. What literature can do is “attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives”. Explain, that is, why our ears insist on hearing tick-tock, not tick-tick. And why we must have, or invent, our happy-ever-afters not just in grand narratives such as the Bible or Das Kapital, but in the smallest tracts of our daily lives (why, for example, do we begin and finish meals rather than just eating?)

Some more reading on Kermode below:

Kermode tribute by John Naughton in the Guardian

NY Times Tribute

Washing Post Tribute

Telegraph Obituary

Top photo of Franke Kermode from The Guardian